(ETA: Fixed the wonky timeline... I think.)
Peeta has finally fallen asleep, but his years of early mornings at the bakery pay off. He's already starting to wake up with the dawn, no matter how little sleep he got, and when the faint sound of sawing starts coming from above, I see his eyelids flicker. I hope it will be enough, because there's nothing I can send, even a bottle of water to drop on him and nudge him the rest of the way awake. Even if I could think of something surefire, I don't have money after sending the ointment. Maybe by later today, the coffers will be refilled, but nothing that happens now can be stopped.
I have to trust him.
"What does she think she's doing?" Brutus roars, coming out of the lounge, his bathrobe tied around him. "Abernathy! What's she doing?"
"Playing the game," I tell him.
"She's not your ally."
"Yeah, well, that thing's going to fall on your boy, too. So much for his pretty little face. An epic love story for the ages there."
He's right about that. Katniss could easily destroy her good will with this, but of course, as far as she knows, Peeta's joined the enemy out of spite. But it's too late to stop it.
Brutus goes to his station and starts looking for something to help his tributes. Enobaria comes out a minute later, actually wearing day clothes. Gloss and Cashmere look like they've also been at the table all night, and Finnick is placing early morning calls to sponsors while Annie presses her hands into the table, frantic. Making her mentor is sadistic; she isn't going to make it through the Games.
A tracker jacker stings Katniss in the knee, but she doesn't scream or stop sawing. Now, Peeta's eyes are open. He's closest to Clove, and he shakes her, but she's groggy and slow.
I don't know if he would call out to wake the others and stop Katniss's plan, but he never gets a chance.
The branch breaks with a thunderous crack, and comes crashing down through the limbs of the tree. The nest bursts open.
I can see on Katniss's screen that she takes at least two more stings, but the swarm stays near the ground, where all of the Careers are now up and screaming. There's coverage on the main screen. Peeta manages to drag Clove up and shove her ahead into the woods, yelling, "To the lake!" I don't know how fast the tracker jackers fly, or how far they'll really follow. There are legends, of course, that they'll keep following until they kill you, that they hold grudges like crows. I don't know what the truth is. I wanted to test it when we had the nest in our tree, but Dad, in one of his few moments of strictness, absolutely forbade the experiment.
Marvel is furthest from the tree, and Peeta manages to yank him to his feet. Cato is also up and alert, and all three boys, along with Clove, rush uphill through the trees. The wasps follow. There's nothing to fight them with. It's like trying to fight poison rain, though Cato gives it his best shot, swiping at them uselessly with his spear.
Back in the clearing, Char was on the far side of the tree from anyone who was awake, and she's surrounded by wasps. They sting her over and over as she finally gets her footing and heads up the hill, but I can tell it's too late. So can Annie and Finnick, judging by the way they're holding onto each other.
Worst of all is Glimmer, who was closest to the point where the nest broke open. The wasps wrap around her like a living shroud, filling her with poison as she screams. At the District One table, Cashmere is standing up and tearing at her hair while Gloss tries to calm her down. With a final, agonized scream, Glimmer falls to the ground, and the insects rise up from the grotesque, red form of a girl who was once very beautiful.
Most of the swarm has been following the others to the lake, but as soon as Glimmer is down -- not dead yet, but down -- the Gamemakers decide that this gambit is over. The tracker jackers pause, hovering, as the full swarm forms, then as if switched off, simply fall to the ground, dead. I don't know how they'll clear away the dead insects. Plutarch once explained to me that arena mutts (unlike the uncontrollable war mutts used in the Dark Days) are under the total control of the Gamemakers because their central nervous systems aren't biological. They're computers of some kind, and they can literally be switched off. ("Not back on, though," he told me with unmistakable frustration. "The labs are working on it, but for now, the biological components deteriorate too rapidly when they lose power.") That's how they control attacks in the arena, when any natural animal would follow its instinct to flee the scene.
None of the kids know that the tracker jackers are gone, though Char is still alert enough to realize that the ones attacking her have gone off to join the swarm. She lies on the hillside, taking shallow gasps of air. Her eyes are wide. I can't imagine what she's seeing. I don't want to.
At the lake, Clove and the boys dive into the water and start frantically swatting at the stings.
Katniss has the same idea.
She climbs down unsteadily and goes to the little pool where she washed up after her burns, and pulls stingers out of her three wounds. She goes underwater to try and cool herself. I can see that she's disoriented.
At the lake, Peeta comes up out of the water first. He's taken four stings from the swarm, but still seems relatively all right. Clove and Marvel are obviously hallucinating, screaming. Cato has a sting under his eye, which has swollen up.
Peeta slips up onto the shore and looks around. I don't know if he realizes that the tracker jackers are gone, or if he's just trying to be noble and not caring. Either way, he heads into the woods. He comes across Char first. She's seizing up.
"I'm sorry," he says.
Her fists clench and she screams at the sky, but before Peeta has to be forced to do anything, she goes still. The cannon doesn't sound yet, but Annie's screen goes dark.
Peeta clenches his teeth and forces himself onward. He's taken one more sting than Katniss, but he's got a good thirty to forty pounds on her, and it seems to be keeping the toxins at bay for the moment.
Katniss has pulled herself out of the pond and onto some rocks, where she's staring strangely into space. Suddenly, she becomes galvanized. I think at first that she's hallucinating like the others, but she's not. She has a job to do -- the same one that I suspect Peeta is planning to do for her.
She gets there first.
The bow is trapped in Glimmer's swollen hands, and the quiver is beneath her. Katniss reaches her as the cannon goes off, and tries to pull on the bow. It doesn't work. She picks up a stone. I want to close my eyes, but I don't. She has to do it, and I have to witness it. There's no choice.
She breaks Glimmer's fingers and retrieves the bow.
I do close my eyes as she turns the body over to get the quiver. I see that the flesh is bursting open, and I shove away visions that try to return to my head, visions of my girl on the fence, her cooked body falling apart as we tried to get her down.
"What are you still doing here?"
I open my eyes.
Peeta has come into the clearing, his eyes a little wild. Katniss is staring in shock at the bow and arrows that have come to her at this cost.
"Are you mad?" he asks her. "Get up, get up!"
I look at the main screen. Cato has passed Char's body, and is charging through the woods, vengeance in his eyes.
I understand Peeta's plan. He meant to grab the bow and arrows -- I doubt he knew what he'd need to do to get them -- then run into the arena with Katniss. But Cato found out too soon.
Cato breaks into the clearing just as Peeta manages to shove Katniss into a downhill run. He starts to go after her, but a spear strikes the tree beside him.
He stops. If he follows her, Cato will track them down, and she can't take him in her current state.
He draws his knife.
I put my hand on my head. Near the bottom of the slope, Katniss stumbles and falls, but manages to catch her feet somehow, though I don't think she has the slightest idea where she is.
Peeta straightens his shoulders. "You're not going after her," he says.
Cato pulls his sword from the sheath slung over his back. "You think so? You're going to stop me?"
"I'll do what I have to."
Cato laughs wildly. With more cameras on him, I can see that he's taken at least seven stings, though he's even bigger than Peeta, so it's hard to judge how they're affecting him. "I was starting to think you had a brain, you know. A plan. I was trying to figure it out. But I had you pegged right in the first place, Loverboy. I knew I couldn't trust you. You were in it for her."
"Yeah, I was. You should learn to trust those instincts, Cato." Peeta tries to circle around him, but Cato blocks him. "What did you think? I wanted to learn life lessons from you?" Peeta smiles oddly. "I knew everything you had to teach me by the time I was eight."
Cato makes a half-hearted stabbing motion, mostly meant to frighten Peeta (though there's no sign of it working). "So what happened? What made you start thinking with your balls instead of your brain? Is she really that good?"
"I'd tell you to grow up, but I don't think you're going to get the chance."
"Is that what you think?"
"It's what I know."
Cato takes another swipe, though he's too far from Peeta for it to be effective. I realize that he's not taunting or teasing. The swollen eye is interfering with his depth perception. He's using the banter to test exactly how far apart they are.
"Peeta, run," I whisper. I know he won't. Cato is still off balance. He could attack, probably get a surprise wound in on Cato to slow him down, and run off until he finds a place to hide for both himself and Katniss.
But he doesn't. He's making his stand, and he's trying to fight fair. It's never a winning strategy in the Games.
I look at Katniss's screen, hoping to find her sneaking up with her bow and arrows, but the tracker jacker stings have taken their toll. She's fallen into a hollow full of orange daylilies and is either unconscious or close to it. No one is approaching her; I can't give her any more attention.
Back in the clearing, Cato makes another experimental swing, and it's close enough that Peeta steps back from it. "What does she do for you, anyway?" he asks. "Skinny little thing like that. She doesn't look like she's got the stamina to go long. What does she do that's got you following her around like a little trained dog? It must be good, whatever it is. Maybe I'll have her demonstrate when I catch her. Before I unzip her guts."
It's an empty threat in the arena, and Peeta knows it, but I can see the anger coming up in his eyes, the anger that will make him stupid. "She'd kill you before you could get in fifty yards of her."
"I treed her yesterday. She likes those hiding places that it's hard to get out of. She'll find one, and I'll wait her out."
"She's armed now," Peeta says. "You're an idiot if you try that."
Cato's eyes flash. "Armed? She took Glimmer's weapon, didn't she?" He moves in and gives Peeta a shove. "You're a traitor! We took you in. Char said you belonged, but you're siding with the girl who murdered her!"
Peeta shoves back. "You cornered her! You're the one who wouldn't leave. You knew she had an eleven, and you knew she meant to live. Char and Glimmer both, they're on you, Cato." He nods at Glimmer's body, which the hovercraft can't pick up until both boys leave. Or die. Neither of them mentions that it was Peeta's idea to camp under the tree.
I feel something warm, and realize that Annie has taken my hand. Finnick is probably calling Char's family right now (she's willing, I'm sure, but they don't need her stammering and frightened, and she knows it), and she's holding my hand while Peeta defends Katniss.
I pat her fingers without looking. The world has gone strange and echoey, and a phantom humming in my ears is going to drive me over the edge.
On my other side, Effie is staring at the screen, pale-faced and serious. She hasn't gotten any sleep or freshened up, and her smudged make-up gives her a strange, lopsided, hallucinatory quality. I feel like I'm the one with tracker jacker stings.
Cato gives Peeta another shove, then raises his sword above his head. "Hope she was worth it, Loverboy," he says, and brings it down in a brutal arc.
Peeta moves forward, inside the arc, and jams his knife up against Cato's right wrist. This time, there's no playacting, no threatening with the flat of the blade. Cato is smart enough to guard his abdomen, but Peeta hasn't even bothered with that. He opens up a huge gash, and pushes Cato away from him.
I think for a brief moment that it's over, that Cato will fall now and Peeta will run, but Cato is as stubborn and determined as he is vicious. He sways forward, but it's a feint. Instead of falling to the ground, he manages to swing his sword around until it's held in both hands again, and with the strength of his left arm, he cuts a brutal stroke into Peeta's thigh. Blood pours out of it, and Peeta falls to the ground.
My screen doesn't go blank.
Cato, reeling from the stings and the hemorrhaging from the cut in his arm, staggers away. I'm sure he thinks Peeta's dead. He makes it up the hill and onto the packed dirt around the Cornucopia, then passes out. Clove and Marvel, both fighting the effects of multiple stings, manage to bring him into camp.
There's a cracking sound, and my entire console goes dead. My table has been shoved harshly out of the power feeds. Some of Effie's papers seesaw down to the floor.
"I think," Brutus says coolly, "that we can safely say that the alliance is broken."
"What a shame. It was going so well." I grab Effie's papers and hand them to her. "Get the table hooked up, sweetheart. Back in our regular spot."
Effie wheels the table away.
Cashmere comes back from the booths, looking at me with flat hate. "Go away, Haymitch."
I start to argue, to remind her of how many of my kids have been killed by tactics like this from the Careers, but I stop. Glimmer was her tribute, and she's just gotten off the phone with her parents… who probably had to watch Katniss break her fingers to steal the bow.
It may not be rational, and she may well know that Glimmer would have done the same or worse, but rational won't be on the table for a while.
I back away without saying anything. Brutus watches me until I reach my regular spot, then goes back to his table and starts arranging for medicine.
On the main screen, Peeta is struggling to sit up while Claudius -- or his morning replacement; I can't tell which from the voice, and don't care -- talks about how quickly he's likely to bleed out from a slash to the femoral artery.
But he doesn't bleed out quickly.
In fact, he manages to sit up and take off his jacket, which he wraps tightly around the wound. It turns darker quickly… but not that quickly.
The wound isn't mortal, at least not directly.
He crawls to the tree Katniss hid in last night and pulls himself up against it. He tries to take a step, but lurches into a fall. If anyone finds him now, it won't matter that Cato didn't kill him.
He pulls himself back to the tree and grabs at the branch Katniss cut away. It's bigger than it looked when she was cutting it. The broken tracker jacker nest is still in the fork of it, looking empty and harmless, like a wadded up newspaper. Beyond the nest, there's another fork in the branch, and he grabs hold of it and breaks it off. It's too short to be a really useful walking stick, but he uses it anyway, digging it into the ground and pulling himself along, away from the clearing, down the hill. He falls a few times and rolls, letting out a dangerous yelp at one point, but no one comes for him. He doesn't lose consciousness. He keeps moving.
As soon as he's well away, the hovercraft collects Glimmer.
There's a soft click as Seeder disconnects her half of the District Eleven table from Chaff's and joins it to mine.
I look at her blankly.
She turns her screen. "See?" she says.
Rue, who apparently didn't stray far from the clearing when Katniss signaled her to leave, lets herself down silently from a tree and descends into the hollow where Katniss is passed out among the daylilies. She crouches down and tentatively shakes Katniss's shoulder.
Katniss groans in her sleep.
"We have to get you out of here. Out of the way."
Katniss mutters something that might include the word "Prim."
Rue smiles. "No, I'm not," she says. "But I'll get you safe, same as you did for her. I'm the big sister here now."
She tries to take the bow and arrows, but Katniss grabs at them instinctively, so she quite wisely changes her mind, and sets about the business of making some kind of sled. There aren't many people so small that they can't carry Katniss Everdeen without a tool, but her new ally is one of them.
"You okay with this?" I ask Seeder. "I mean, you said… and Katniss did just…"
"…do exactly what Rue suggested, while keeping her out of the line of fire?" Seeder shakes her head. "What choice did she have?"
I can't think of one.
While Rue goes about finding a way to move Katniss, I turn my attention back to Peeta. He's found his way down to the stream. It's the first place anyone is going to look for him. They were there only hours ago.
Then again, by the looks of him, I'm not sure he'll make it until they recover from their injuries.
The jacket bound around his leg is completely wet with his blood now, and his face is pale and dazed under the mud. He manages to limp across the stream, but he leaves a long smear of blood on a rock as he tries to catch his balance. It may as well be a sign.
He rests there, breathing in sharp, shallow gasps, looking around wildly. The screen splits, and Peeta is relegated to the lower left corner while Claudius's morning replacement chats with a hastily assembled panel to talk about what he'll have to do if he's going to survive. None of them seem terribly hopeful, but one suggests that if he can find a way to get constant pressure on the wound, avoid moving a lot, and stay away from the Careers, he has a slight chance.
"Helpful," Seeder says. "Should he also make sure that he drinks water and breathes air?"
"We can't even afford water," Effie says. "Haymitch, what do you need me to do?"
"First, we hope that the water in the arena doesn't have too many little bugs in it. That's all he's got."
"I thought -- " Seeder begins.
I shake my head. "It all went to Katniss's medicine last night. I thought there might be time before I needed anything else. Sorry."
"I don't have much for Rue, or I'd see about anti-venom…"
"It's okay." I look at Effie. "Set up meetings. They both need help."
"Everyone wants to help both of them."
"Yeah? Good. Work that as hard as you can. Keep the story going. Put it in the general fund."
Effie picks up the phone and starts making calls.
"Are you going to try and keep the romance story going?" Seeder asks. "Do you really think you can get it back after that?"
"Peeta already got it back. He fought a killer to save her after the wasps came. He's not giving up. They won't, either."
Seeder considers this very carefully, then casually changes the subject. "Interesting, isn't it?" She says. "We're down to ten, and six of them are full district compliments."
I start to mentally set this aside (it's not entirely in the realm of the story) but something stops me before it disappears. Six of ten are district partners. Peeta and Katniss. Rue and Thresh. Clove and Cato.
I can work with that. If Peeta can survive, I can work with it.
He spots something across the stream and lurches over. I can't really see what he's looking at -- a little shelf of rock that overhangs the stream. There's a tight spot under it, and he packs one end of it with soft mud. This takes him a long time, and he seems to forget what he's doing once or twice. I can't figure it out in the first place. When he's got a loose slurry of mud there, he makes a much larger pile of it. He begins to smear it over his clothes, almost haphazardly.
A breeze hits him. It can't be much of a breeze -- the trees barely respond to it -- but he shudders violently. Frantically, he grabs at the jacket tied around his leg and pulls it off. The leg starts to bleed, but not to gush. He puts the jacket on, then scoops up a handful of leaves and presses it against the wound, shoving it under the pants-leg to apply pressure. I don't think this is the best solution. He'll need something stronger. But if he's getting chills in midday, by night (if he makes it), he'll need his jacket as well, and he's mentally present enough to realize that, which I decide to interpret as a hopeful sign.
He goes back to the mud smearing, covering his face and arms, dotting it here and there with darker earth and grabbing more leaves to stick into it. He checks his reflection in the water, though it's running fast enough that I doubt he can see much.
All he looks like is a very muddy boy.
He smears more filth into his hair, then lowers himself down to the ground beside the overhanging rock. He plunges his feet into the loose mud at the end. He gasps with pain as his wound brushes the rock, then he rolls underneath, pulling along the excess mud and packing it around himself.
I can see him because I'm looking for him, but even I have to actively search. There are finger marks in the mud near his hiding place, but the water moves quickly, and I realize that he very carefully made them along its path. They'll be worn away soon. He can reach out and get a handful of water. His leg is pressure packed under the rock with mud and leaves.
Everything he needs to do to have a chance, he's done.
It's not a guarantee, and I don't want to think about what's getting into his wound, but he's managed, with nothing but mud, to save himself, at least for the moment. Maybe long enough for me to do him some good. He won't like it if I divert resources to him instead of to Katniss, but if I can make my crazy idea work, if I can adopt just enough Donnerism to make it happen… maybe he wouldn't argue with me trying to help them both.
Seeder helps me set up my handheld monitor, since I haven't had much reason to keep up with the changing technology of the thing. It splits the screen for me, so I can watch both kids. I take it with me for meetings with sponsors over the next two days.
Some of these are entirely sponsor meetings. There are people all over the Capitol enthralled with the story, and with both of the kids currently knocked out, they're happy to keep themselves stimulated by meeting with me. They ask a lot of questions about how the kids get along in District Twelve. I honestly tell them that I don't know, but imply heavily that there may be a long-hidden secret there, and I'd sure like to know what it is. They would, too, they assure me.
The money starts coming in again. A young singer named Julian Day comes with a small army as an entourage. It's off-putting at first, but he seems decent enough. He gives me a good pledge, and tells me that he's writing a song for Katniss and Peeta, if it's all right with me for him to perform it. I assure him that it's more than all right, and promise myself to grin and compliment him, no matter how horrible it ends up being.
Tryphaena Buttery, one of the Daughters who hasn't sponsored for a few years, gives me a solid sum, and tells me that Peeta is simply the most wonderful boy she has ever seen, and she hopes boys everywhere will want to be like him instead of like that horrid boy from Two. After she leaves, I meet with a young couple who have styled themselves after Katniss and Peeta and want to donate all they can. Mimi Meadowbrook's old co-star, Valerian Vale, comes through with a mindboggling sum for a guy whose claim to fame is overacting in a long-running soap-opera. ("I don't waste my money," he tells me. "I take good care of it… and I'm not giving it lightly.") There are doctors and artists and politicians. I can't meet with them all personally, but the fund continues to grow.
I meet briefly with Finnick at dinner. He is definitely not holding a grudge about Char. I tell him what I need. He is on television that evening, talking about the great romance playing out in the arena. I don't want his sponsors -- neither of the kids needs Finnick's kind of attention -- but he has a huge fan base outside of his enforced extracurricular activities. They don't have money for me, but he succeeds in spreading a kind of fever in the Capitol. My kids had fans before, but the narrative is really starting to emerge. It began when Peeta turned to face Cato, rather than letting him run after Katniss. This is no longer just a romance. This is an epic tale of nobility and sacrifice, and the fair maiden must, at all costs, be made worthy of it. As Katniss sleeps, she becomes a legend. Stories about her beauty and goodness rise up in man-on-the-street interviews, some based loosely on her sacrifice for Prim, some constructed from whole cloth.
Through this, Katniss sleeps. Rue carefully gives her water and treats her stings with chewed up leaves. I want to help, but I have a feeling that anything I'm going to need from here on in is going to take everything I'm managing to scrape together.
Peeta becomes feverish and ill, and doctors continue to almost gleefully predict his demise. Gloss and Brutus send medication to the remaining Careers. It doesn't work as well as the leaves Rue has been using, at least on the swellings, which amuses Seeder and Chaff greatly. When they're up and about at last, they're completely convinced that Peeta died while they were out of it, until the first night's pictures go up and they only see Char and Glimmer.
The day after the wasp attack, they head down the hill. By luck, they don't turn toward Katniss and Rue, but they're standing within five feet of Peeta in the stream. They see the blood smear, but deduce that he's long-since moved on, since there's no other sign of him.
I continue to meet with people. Other than the donors, I meet with Cinna, whose popularity has been soaring since the parade. He and Portia go on television to keep pitching the star-crossed lovers story.
I talk to Cecelia at lunch. She has been happily married for a few years now, and has become a different sort of romantic symbol. She explicitly compares Peeta to her dear husband, viciously planting the idea of a happily-ever-after ending that the audience will soon start to demand.
Late in the afternoon, I meet with more sponsors. I see Plutarch watching me from an upper window. I don't have time to talk to him now. I'll have more than enough work for him later.
I meet with Caesar over dinner. He's very excited about the story. He adores Peeta, and is very curious about Katniss. He's technically an executive producer for the Games. I ask him what would happen if people were to start demanding a happy ending.
He smiles. "Well, you know how the Games work, Haymitch," he says.
"I do. But think how interesting an angle that would be. Not just for me, either. District Eleven and District Two both have pairs as well."
Caesar doesn't pretend to believe the cynical tone. "It's interesting," he says. "And I'll instruct them to follow up on the district partner angle. But be careful, Haymitch. Don't give anyone the impression that you're trying to get the Capitol audience to change the rules."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"No, of course not."
He goes back to the studio to bring up the interesting curiosity about all the district pairs.
I take a car out to the offices of the Daughters of the Founding.
Aquila Grant meets me in the garden and offers me a nice iced tea. I take it.
We don't go inside.
"Have I disappointed you?" I ask.
"No. You've pleasantly surprised me, Mr. Abernathy. I imagine it isn't easy, not drinking."
"It's not. But right now, I'm too busy."
"You aren't here for money."
"No." I look around.
"The gardens aren't bugged. That's why we're having a pleasant stroll." She smiles and laughs brightly at nothing, then says, "What is it you do need?"
"I need the audience to rebel," I tell her flatly.
"I had a feeling it was something like that. And you think we can help you somehow?"
"If it came from somewhere unobtrusive first, somewhere quiet and dignified... And very traditional."
"I see." She smiles. "Well, they didn't overestimate your intelligence, did they? You're a sly creature, Haymitch Abernathy. I appreciate that in a person."
"Will you help?"
"I'll consider it," she says.
I go back to the Viewing Center. Effie and Seeder are watching Rue gather up roots and berries. Peeta is mumbling in his delirium.
Katniss sleeps on.